Sunday, June 10, 2012

Values, economic self-interest, religious diversity and the labor movement

A short item by Keith Humphreys takes aim at a long standing progressive whine:

It’s one of the oldest tropes of the left: Working class people who “should” support liberal candidates instead elect conservatives because they are tricked into voting based on cultural issues (e.g., abortion, religion). In this fashion, the theory runs, conservative candidates fool blue collar people into betraying their own self-interests.

Jonathan Haidt asks rhetorically “But are voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values?”. His answer, well-described and defended, is no. Moral and cultural interests are as much self-interests as are economic concerns. Working class voters who support conservatives are therefore not being duped. Rather, they are responding to those of their self-interests which transcend the economic.

Humphreys goes on to point out that rich people also vote their "values" -- often the protection of greed, but hey, it's that sort of society we live in.

All this had me thinking about the debacle in the Wisconsin recall and more generally the ever-more isolated condition of workers organized in unions. Somehow, after reaching its pinnacle of power the 1950s, the labor movement too came to stand in the minds of it leaders and the perceptions of most observers only for the economic interests of its members (and at its best its potential members). Misassessment of workers as solely self-interested economic actors is not limited to liberal intellectuals. Labor leadership in the 60s and 70s found itself challenged by an insurgent counterculture both outside and inside labor whose values were rooted in ending an indefensible war, supporting African American, then women's, then gays' emergence into full citizenship -- these were novel, unfamiliar values. It was easier to retreat into affirming that workers only cared about pay, benefits and pensions than to interact with these unfamiliar values.

But the new values marched on and were eventually assimilated to a very substantial extent by most of the country -- and by a dwindling labor movement itself. Nowadays labor's values -- as well as the most vital, still growing sectors of its membership -- aren't so different from the wider progressive ones anymore. But the assumption that somehow unions are only about homo economicus -- workers as economic actors -- hangs on and undercuts support for labor among more prosperous sectors of the working class, among people who have never known solidarity in the workplace, people who can't imagine that "an injury to one is an injury to all." Labor's communal values often seem submerged by the movement's own ratification of economic self-interest as the main spur to action.

All this makes it so much easier for the likes of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to attack labor on behalf of his Koch industries sponsors.
Thinking about the operation of values and value differences in the political arena led me to an interesting fragment of social science research.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley conducted three experiments that show less religious people perform acts of generosity more from feelings of compassion than do more religious people. …

“The main take-away from the research is that there may be very different reasons why more and less religious people behave generously, when they do,” said Robb Willer, an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley and a co-author of the studies. “Across three studies, we found compassion played a much bigger role in the way that less religious people treated others. Religious people, in contrast, tended to behave as generously as they would regardless of how compassionately they felt.”

That is, religious people practicing generosity are "working to rule" more than non-religious people; the latter have to "feel it." Importantly, these researchers are not saying that less religious people are more generous -- both kinds of folks can be generous, but they get there from different values.

I wonder how this observed dichotomy interacts with our political values, especially as we relate to the values of economic self-interest and economic communal solidarity -- to the world of the labor movement.

Whatever else we are, the majority of us in the USA verbally affirm we are religious. Yet the fastest growing segment of the population as far as religious identification goes is "none of the above."

I wonder: when the labor movement has seemed trapped in speaking narrowly to economic self-interest, is it instinctively appealing to the "work to rule" instinct of the historically religious? Do the more empathetic values that have advanced in society and infiltrated labor's reality if not its language spring from the less religious path to forming values identified in this study? Certainly the efficacy of "coming out" in advancing gay rights fits this pattern; knowing someone gay flips an empathy switch and much else seems to follow. Is the labor movement being undermined by changes in our religious affiliations (or lack of them) at the same time it is in the cross hairs of the plutocracy's best shots? Much to ponder.

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